Sigrid Thornton Gets Musical with Fiddler

Fiddler1

Sigrid Thornton with Anthony Warlow in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

With 40 years of high-profile acting credits to her name, Sigrid Thornton is Australian showbiz royalty. But resting on her laurels clearly has zero appeal. Instead, she is always on the look out for roles that will challenge her and teach her something new.

Take the new Australian production of Fiddler on the Roof in which she plays Golde, the wife of Tevye (played by Anthony Warlow) the milkman with five daughters who tries to hold onto tradition in a changing world.

Directed by Roger Hodgman, the production opened in Melbourne at the end of last year and has its official Sydney opening tonight.

“It’s my second musical. I have to laugh because I never imagined that I would ever work in musical theatre but it started with A Little Night Music (for Opera Australia in 2009, also with Warlow). And I love it, I absolutely love it,” says Thornton.

“There’s something about having (a score). This is really from Anthony’s mouth so I’ll quote him in saying that it’s a soundtrack for your performance – because that is exactly what happens. Having musical accompaniment, working with an orchestra and actually singing some of your emotions is very exciting. I’m on a huge learning curve. I’m surrounded by people who have been doing it for a very long time and that is an attraction.”

This time around Thornton decided to take singing lessons before going into rehearsals.

“That was an attraction for me, a genuine pull. I said ‘if I’m going to tackle this at all I wanted to improve my singing voice,’” she says brightly.

“Now, I’m not in the job to sing like Anthony or indeed any of the other singers in the show but having said that I fancy that my voice has definitely strengthened during the course of the run. I always wanted to be able to pull off a song better, simply for my own pleasure. I never imagined I’d be able to put it to professional use but it’s been a gift.

“It’s always a gift to keep learning. It sounds terrifically corny but that’s why I’m still doing what I do. I like to keep stretching it out and discovering what I can and can’t achieve. You are always discovering the limitations and boundaries of your skills but you want to try and extend those as much as possible,” she says.

Fiddler2

Sigrid Thornton as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thornton has a small, light singing voice, it must be said, but she creates a strong, believable character as Golde.

Set in 1905 in a small Jewish village in Tzarist Russia, which the inhabitants are forced to leave at the end of the show, Fiddler on the Roof is a musical theatre classic with a much-loved score including songs such as If I Were a Rich Man, Tradition, Matchmaker and Sunrise Sunset.

“It’s about a marginalised people but fundamentally it’s about love and family and community and connection and so they’re universal themes. Despite the fact that the show has been around a long time, the refugee thing is more current now than ever,” says Thornton.

Prior to rehearsals, Thornton knew the show “to the extent that a musical tourist would know it. I’d seen the film many years ago and I’d seen Topol (playing Tevye on stage) maybe 11 or 12 years ago,” she says.

“This is a very different production. One of the major differences is that it is a new orchestration. The most recent London production negotiated to do a new orchestration, which is a very complex thing as you can imagine, and so we were able to ride with that and it’s very beautiful. It’s much simpler, much more folky and it’s probably more true to the music culture of the day.”

With her children now grown-up, Thornton has been able to take on plenty of work in recent years.

“I’ve always been a career mother but I actually have had long periods away from work for reasons of family. But the kids are now 24 and 30 so they are adults,” she says.

She has certainly been busy. Last year, she received accolades for her performance as Judy Garland in the Channel Seven miniseries Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door. She has joined the cast of Wentworth, Foxtel’s contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, playing a cosmetic executive accused of murder.

“I have the honour and privilege apparently of being the only original Prisoner cast member to appear on Wentworth,” she says.

She also has a role as a cyber-security executive in the second series of the ABC’s acclaimed political drama The Code and features in the Cairnes Brothers’ much anticipated second feature Scare Campaign.

“It’s actually been quite a roller-coaster year now that I think about it,” she says of the past 12 months or so.

“That was another attraction to Fiddler – to play a serious character role in something that was a different medium because I’ve done quite a lot of films and television recently. That’s been really exciting but I wanted to try something completely different as Monty Python would say.”

Now 57, Thornton says she needs “to explore what’s out there for women my sort of age. There are still limitations for women but I think the gap will gradually close on that score. I think it’s really interesting looking at what’s coming out of the States. I was browsing through Variety the other day (and looking at) the pilots that are being made in the States and the majority seemed female driven and I was quite interested to see that.

“I’m an optimistic type. That’s my personality. I think in general equality and opportunity for the sexes (in Australia) has still got a fair way to go for a country that’s highly developed in all sort of ways. But it is changing and it’s changing for the better.”

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Capitol Theatre, March 24 – May 6. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20

Ghost the Musical

Theatre Royal, March 18 & 19

Ghostwheel

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix as Sam and Molly. Photo: Jeff Busby

Based on the hugely popular 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical has a lot to live up to – but happily it has been translated to the stage with plenty of whiz-bang flair. It’s certainly not the greatest musical ever written but it’s great entertainment.

Adapting his own Academy Award-winning screenplay, Bruce Joel Rubin sticks fairly faithfully to the film with a few minor changes to the supernatural love story-cum-thriller.

High-flying banker Sam Wheat (Rob Mills) and his sculptor girlfriend Molly Jensen (Jemma Rix) have just moved into their dream loft apartment in Brooklyn. Returning home from a romantic dinner, Sam is killed in a street mugging but finds himself trapped between this world and the next as he tries to save Molly from mortal danger.

Directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical), the production creates a tangible sense of the gritty New York world where the story is set. The show has a cinematic feel, not just in its use of Jon Driscoll’s dynamic video projections – which help establish the different locations and support a number of the illusions including the subway scene – but in the way Warchus keeps the action flowing swiftly and seamlessly.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve does an ingenious job of creating spectacular supernatural effects on stage, from Sam passing through a solid door to departed souls being whisked to heaven or hell.

Having Sam in a white shirt under pale blue lighting, with a slight reverb on his voice, works well to differentiate him from the living characters. Bobby Aitken’s sound effects heighten the supernatural aspect, while Hugh Vanstone’s coloured, rock concert lighting is also integral to the visual wizardry.

And, yes, the iconic pottery wheel scene with its wet, slippery clay is there but at a different point in the story when Sam is already dead. It’s much less erotic, which is a sensible, tasteful decision, but the scene is so short you can sense disappointment from the audience.

The book and lyrics are humdrum at times and the pop rock score by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and heavyweight producer Glen Ballard isn’t wildly memorable. Nor do the songs always move the action forward. However, they are catchy enough, while the best – such as Molly’s lyrical ballads With You and Nothing Stops Another Day – have lovely melodies. The Righteous Brothers’ iconic Unchained Melody from the film is used effectively as a motif through the show.

Too often, Ashley Wallen’s uninspiring choreography looks as if the ensemble members are dancers in a music video clip rather than their movement supporting and adding to the scene. However, the physical language used for Sam as he starts to negotiate the world as a ghost is cleverly done. Accompanied by swooshing sound effects that seem to slice the air, the movement creates a believable illusion of Sam passing through bodies and being unable to grip objects. Mills, David Denis as the subway poltergeist and David Roberts as Carl all handle the physicality convincingly as they are thrown around in supernatural fight scenes.

GHOST3

Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast. Photo: Jeff Busby

The musical really takes off with the appearance of Oda Mae Brown, the phony psychic who is astonished to discover she can hear Sam. British actor Wendy Mae Brown almost puts Whoopi Goldberg in the shade with her larger-than-life, sassy, gloriously comic characterisation. She has a rich, honey-smooth voice, nails every comic moment and raises the roof with her gospel-infused numbers.

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix have a nice rapport and work well together vocally. Rix conveys Molly’s heartache without becoming soppy and her voice is gorgeous whether she’s unleashing a powerhouse belt or touching the heart with a pop ballad.

Mills has always been hugely likeable on stage but here he matches it with a performance that delivers dramatically and emotionally. We share his frustration and his shock at Carl’s betrayal, while his grief and love for Molly feel real. His singing is also stronger than ever, and he really rocks his big number I Had a Life.

David Roberts plays Carl with just the right mix of easy charm and ruthlessness without overdoing it in a strongly acted performance. Ross Chisari is suitably thuggish as hood-for-hire Willie Lopez and David Denis exudes plenty of agro as the hip-hop subway ghost.

For all its flaws, Ghost the Musical is cleverly staged and extremely entertaining. It sweeps you up in its story-telling and while the flashy staging ramps up the wow factor, the emotional story still shines through. Clearly some remained untouched but to my surprise I was in tears at the end, and I wasn’t alone.

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal until May 14. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au 136 100

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20

Make Believe with Stage Illusionist Paul Kieve

SPOILER ALERT: No illusions are explained in the making of this story but some plot details and special effects are described so if you want to go to see Ghost the Musical without knowing anything about it, avert your eyes.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve has collaborated with director Matthew Warchus on a number of projects over the last 20 years including Ghost the Musical, Matilda the Musical and Tim Minchin’s forthcoming musical Groundhog Day.

Paul Kieve

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve. Photo: supplied

“I’ve worked with him many times and I always say to him, ‘Matthew, if you want to do great stuff, you’ve got to put the magic in really early,’” says London-born Kieve.

That was certainly the case with Ghost the Musical. In fact, the entire set design was built around the show’s most famous illusion, which sees the deceased Sam Wheat walk through a closed door.

“It’s one moment in the story. It lasts 45 seconds in our version but although you wouldn’t know it, everything about the set was dictated by it,” says Kieve.

“We had to put that in first and work everything else backwards. It’s very unusual for the design to be worked out backwards. And to be worked out backwards from an illusion is almost unheard of. It was a long and not always easy process. As the original set designer Rob Howell – who also did the West End and Broadway productions – said at the time, normally as a designer you want your best ideas on show and in this, in some respects, the best ideas are hidden because there is all this other stuff going on that you don’t know about.”

Based on the blockbuster 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical premiered in Manchester in 2011 then moved to the West End and Broadway. It was redesigned for a UK tour, and it is that touring version, which is now being used in Australia where the show arrives in Sydney this week after seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne.

“There’s no difference to what you see, it’s just some of the technical side and some of the engineering is reduced but it looks the same,” says Kieve.

Kieve’s mother was an actor so he was taken to the theatre regularly from a young age. He began doing magic as a 10-year old when he was given a magic set as a birthday present and by his teens was performing as a professional magician.

“Then a local theatre – the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where Joan Littlewood started out – asked me to work on The Invisible Man, which had never been done on stage before. I was slightly terrified and threw myself in the deep end and worked on it for four months. We did all these daft things like bicycles cycling about by themselves and the Invisible Man unwrapping the bandages from around his head and smoking a cigarette. They became quite famous effects and the show went into the West End and launched me into that side of things. Before I knew it people were asking me to do other stage effects so I pretty much learned on the job,” says Kieve.

He first worked with Warchus in 1995 on a production of Peter Pan for West Yorkshire Playhouse and is now an associate artist at the Old Vic where Warchus is artistic director. They are currently collaborating on Groundhog Day: The Musical, which previews at the Old Vic from July. Kieve’s many other credits include the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Kate Bush’s 2014 tour Before the Dawn.

GHOST2

Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown, Rob Mills as Sam Wheat and Jemma Rix as Molly Jensen in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Kan Nakanishi

For anyone who doesn’t know about Ghost, it’s a supernatural love story between high-flying banker Sam Wheat and his artist girlfriend Molly Jensen. They have just found their dream loft apartment in Manhattan. Walking home from a restaurant, Sam is killed in a street mugging. However, his spirit is trapped between this world and the next as he attempts to save Molly from mortal danger by communicating through a shyster psychic called Oda Mae Brown, who to her astonishment can actually hear Sam from beyond the grave.

“When Ghost came along, Matthew wanted it to be this beautiful love story but he also wanted to have this juxtaposition of the beautiful soft story and a bit of a rock concert feel to some of the lighting,” says Kieve.

“He also wanted it to be like a magic show and for the magic to be really central to it. We didn’t really know if it was going to work but there was something about this story that completely lends itself to illusion because I suppose it’s asking the audience to believe – and magic questions what you believe and what you’re seeing.

“The reason I think the magic works very well in it – and I’m not talking myself up, I’m talking about the actual context and why an audience enjoys the magic in it – is because the whole story you’re wanting Molly to believe that Oda Mae really is in contact with Sam. You want Molly to listen to Sam from beyond (the grave). You want that moment to happen, so I think that whenever anything magical happens you are on the side of it happening,” says Kieve.

“There’s that famous scene in the movie where Demi Moore dances with Whoopi Goldberg (who played Oda Mae) and then Demi Moore closes her eyes and feels Sam there. The show is a lot about that. It’s about what people are feeling and what they are sensing – and at its best, magic encourages that. It should be about a sense of wonder, a sense of astonishment, a sense of amazement. So it’s a great vehicle because it is asking these very profound questions about if someone dies will you ever see them again?

“I saw it in Adelaide and there was a woman in front of me who was absolutely sobbing (when they dance) and I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful idea that comes true; that in the end Molly does believe and she does see Sam.”

The show contains various illusions besides Sam passing through a solid door including subway passengers being thrown through the air and spirits leaving dead bodies. It also features dynamic video projections.

“Technically it’s a very interesting piece because it really was a collaboration between the video and the movement and the acting and the storytelling,” adds Kieve. “Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote the original Academy Award-winning screenplay and the book and lyrics for the musical) was around and he wrote parts of the script to help make the illusions work because we had to set things up without (the audience) knowing.”

Kieve cites the sequence in the subway with a poltergeist as a good example of how all the various departments collaborated, with choreography, illusion and video all playing their part.

“It’s really inventive. It’s like you are looking through the train like an X-ray and you see what’s going on inside it and you see it from different perspectives. At one point you are looking down the train as if you are standing at one end of the carriage and then it’s as if you are seeing through the side of it and it keeps shifting perspective,” says Kieve.

The show also uses a lot of imagery around shadows to suggest the spirit world. “Even in the opening scene in (the song) Here Right Now, Sam and Molly are dancing and there’s a shadow of them dancing in the air almost. It’s not just to make it look pretty. It’s the idea that all the time there is this other world, a secondary ghost world going on,” says Kieve.

GHOST3

Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

Though Kieve is hardly going to reveal how any of the illusions work, he admit that state-of-the-art lighting is crucial to some of it – though many of the effects use time-honoured magic techniques.

“I love the history of illusion and some of the effects that appear to be state-of-the-art are drawing on techniques that are over 100 years old. We are combining them with modern lighting, and the way that we can get into the and out of them so precisely, and the way they can be cued by computers – but the essence of some of them are ideas that have been around a long time.

“I’m also using psychological techniques – (guiding) where you are looking and where your eye is drawn,” says Kieve.

One of his favourite illusions in the show is also one of the least flashy. “It’s simply a letter that Molly reads. Sam has written it to her but the medium can somehow read it because Sam is reading it to her and then the letter just folds itself up in Molly’s hands. It’s really the pivotal moment when she realises that Sam is really there. It’s such an important moment because it’s the moment that she does believe. It’s not really a technological moment but it’s where the story and the effects combine and that’s when you get this gold dust when magic carries the weight of the story behind it.”

Casting his mind back over a career spent creating illusions, Kieve says that “it’s fun but it can be extraordinarily frustrating as well and you can get things wrong. You don’t always know if it will work, especially with something that hasn’t been done before like walking through the door.

“I can remember very distinctly being quite anxious about it because it was so audacious. You go, ‘what happens if (it doesn’t work)? But then you go, ‘we’re not brain surgeons. What happens if? You find another way to tell that part of the story.’ It’s risky but playfully risky as long as you’ve got a director who’s got the nerve and trusts you. I have to say that 99 percent of the time I find a way.

“In Ghost some of the trickiest moments were when someone dies and the spirit splits from the physical body. We’d worked it out and had got to the last death – of Carl – and we realised we couldn’t do it in the same way just because the body couldn’t be left in the middle of the stage. So we had to restage it in about five minutes – and that’s the version we use. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, March 18 – May 14 and at the Crown Theatre, Perth, May 21 – June 12. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

Little Shop of Horrors

Hayes Theatre Co, February 23

LittleShop1

Tyler Coppin as Mr Mushnik and Brent Hill as Seymour (with Audrey II). Photo: Jeff Busby

The Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the scene in February 2014 with a brilliantly re-imagined production of Sweet Charity. Two years later, the same creative team, led by director Dean Bryant, has reunited to stage Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 cult musical Little Shop of Horrors.

Naturally, expectations were high but this pitch-perfect production (from Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions) exceeds them.

Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 black-and-white schlock-horror film, Menken has described Little Shop of Horrors as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world”.

Set in the early 1960s, a downtrodden, dorky florist’s assistant on Skid Row called Seymour Krelborn dreams of a better life and winning the love of his equally put-upon co-worker Audrey, who is dating a sadistic dentist.

When Seymour discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But the plant needs human blood to survive and its appetite just keeps growing. Seymour must decide how and whether to keep feeding it.

LittleShop2

Esther Hannaford as Audrey, Brent Hill as  Seymour and Audrey II. Photo: Jeff Busby

With a wonderfully catchy score drawing on 1960s rock and doo-wop, a tight plot and razor-sharp lyrics, Little Shop has long been a crowd-pleaser. But Bryant’s superb production gives the show a fresh heart and dark edge that could hardly be bettered, balancing the show’s spoofy comedy and gritty themes perfectly.

Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny but we never lose sight of the fact that the plant feeds on greed and self-interest (even if it comes from a heartfelt, innocent place) as well as human flesh. It is also a metaphor for every fear about being invaded and consumed whether by aliens or migrants, communism or capitalism, anything we might consider threatening.

Owen Phillips’ superb, off-kilter set with its drab florist shop and clever projections on a front curtain embodies an inspired surprise in the way it plays with colour, while the plant itself is a series of remarkable, ever-bigger puppets by Sydney-based company Erth Visual & Physical Inc., eventually taking over most of the stage. When the plant gets its teeth into a full, meaty meal, it’s so well choreographed it’s stomach-turningly convincing.

Tim Chappel’s costuming is gorgeously kitsch, and Andrew Hallsworth’s witty choreography is sensational, ranging from a modern take on 1960s girl group moves to a hilarious Russian/Jewish folk dance with squatting kicks and turns for “Mushnik and Son”. Brought to vibrant, heightened life by Ross Graham’s lighting, the production is an eye-popping visual delight.

Musically the production is terrific too, performed by a five-piece offstage band led by musical director Andrew Worboys. At times, in a minor quibble, the sound is a bit loud for the tiny Hayes but that won’t be an issue when the production goes into larger venues on its national tour.

Bryant has cast the show beautifully. As Seymour and Audrey, two lost souls who briefly glimpse happiness, Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford give the production an aching heart.

LittleShop4

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Hill is totally endearing as Seymour. In an intriguing move, Bryant has Hill voice the plant too, which opens up Seymour’s relationship with Audrey II to various interpretations. It means that Hill sings an extraordinary duet with himself in “Feed Me (Git It)”. It’s hugely demanding technically but Hill does it so superbly (a vocal tour de force) you don’t even realise he’s doing it initially.

Hannaford is exquisite as the ditsy Audrey, conveying her vulnerability and painful lack of self-esteem. Her comic timing is impeccable and her ravishing voice shimmers with emotion whether it’s gently caressing a ballad or soaring into the stratosphere. “Suddenly Seymour”, which she sings with Hill is a spine-tingling musical highlight.

Ellen Greene, who played Audrey in the original production and Frank Oz’s 1986 film, famously gave the character a girlish, breathy voice complete with lisp. Hannaford’s accent is less pronounced than that (mercifully) but mixes an Eastern European tinge into the New York drawl, which works well.

Scott Johnson is hilarious as the psychopathic dentist who gets high on nitrous oxide while inflicting pain, giving him a knowing swagger. Tyler Coppin is also very funny as the mercenary, unmensch Mr Mushnik.

LittleShopTrio

Angelique Cassimatis, Chloe Zuel and Josie Lane. Photo: Jeff Busby

As the sassy girl-group Greek chorus, Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel each have a fierce individual presence and voice while harmonising tightly, raising the roof.

Bryant brings it all together in a production that is dazzlingly entertaining, creepy in a comical kind of way and yet tough enough to get under your skin and keep you pondering it long after the lights have gone down. Utterly brilliant.

Little Shop of Horrors plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 19. It then tours to Adelaide Festival Centre from April 20 – 29; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from May 4– 12; Canberra Theatre Centre from May 25 – 29; QPAC, Brisbane from June 1 – 9; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney from July 20 – 24; His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth from August 4 – 7.

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 28

Hey, there Georgy girl!

Pippa Grandison wasn’t interested in imitating Judith Durham, but in trying to find her spirit for Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical 

GeorgyGirl

Pippa Grandison with Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft as The Seekers in the musical Georgy Girl. Photo: Jeff Busby

 

When Pippa Grandison’s agent asked her if she was interested in auditioning for the role of Judith Durham in Georgy Girl, the new musical about The Seekers, she did some quick research, not knowing a great deal about them.

“I’d been hiding up in Terrigul being a mum for a while and not coming out for anything that didn’t really interest me or that took me away for too long from my family,” says Grandison who has a seven-year old daughter.

“I had a (listen) and I thought ‘I really do like that style of music’. And I looked on YouTube and saw Judith and I talked to my husband (actor Steve Le Marquand) and we both thought ‘gosh, there was something there’ (a similar quality). So I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go, throw my hat into the ring,’” says Grandison.

Several auditions later, Grandison was one of four girls in final contention for the role and desperately wanted it.

“The third audition was in Melbourne. They flew me down and the other girls were so fantastic. We could all hear each other, which was disconcerting. I came home and thought I did well but that I wasn’t going to get it, maybe because I wanted it so much and I started grieving,” says Grandison.

When the call finally came to say that the part was hers, she couldn’t believe it.

“It was so exciting. For two days I was jumping around the house with my husband and child,” recalls Grandison. “On the third day I got up and went ‘oh my gosh! What have I done? I’ve got to do it now. This is huuuuuge!’”

Grandison’s many musical theatre credits include Elphaba in Wicked, Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins, The Witches of Eastwick and We Will Rock You. She is currently on screen in the Channel Nine comedy series Here Come the Habibs! playing the well-heeled best friend of Olivia, the Habib’s appalling, antagonistic neighbour.

Georgy Girl premiered in Melbourne in December, and Grandison has received warm praise for her portrayal of the golden-voiced Durham.

Written by Durham’s brother-in-law Patrick Edgeworth, the show tells the story of The Seeker’s incredible rise to fame in the 1960s and Durham’s decision to leave the group just four years later as the US beckoned. It also covers her 25-marriage to pianist Ron Edgeworth and The Seeker’s sold-out 25th anniversary and 50th anniversary reunion tours.

Featuring their hit songs The Carnival is Over, I’ll Never Find Another You, A World of Our Own, Morningtown Ride, I am Australia and the Oscar-nominated Georgy Girl, the show arrives in Sydney in April.

pippa-grandison-298436-wfrpowwsrjlc

Pippa Grandison. Photo: supplied

Grandison got a chance to spent time with Durham on the publicity trail when the musical was first announced and soaked it all in.

“The first time I really started to get to know her was when we were being interviewed together and I just sat and watched and listened and learned so much about it. We do have some kind of a connection,” says Grandison.

“I can’t imagine the feeling of having someone play you. I wasn’t quite sure how she would respond to me but she’s very open, warm and encouraging. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn but I think she’s happy with my portrayal of her, and our portrayal of her story. She sent me a beautiful card and some flowers on opening night. It’s such an honour to be able to play her.”

Grandison says she wasn’t interested in doing an imitation of Durham – “and thankfully neither were the creative team. I think an imitation would be disrespectful to her and the fans really. Their memories are so precious and her voice has something so unique.

“I’ve obviously worked the voice so that I can get similar sounds but there will never be another Judith Durham so I just want to get the spirit of her.”

Grandison says that she and Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft who play the other members of The Seekers worked really hard in rehearsals on getting their voices to blend and create a similar sound to the original band.

“We all really wanted to get that right: listening to each other and no-one singing over the top of each other. Once you get into the theatre it changed because you don’t hear each other like you do when you are just sitting around a room singing because you don’t get the fold back and in different spots it’s really hard to hear each other so you just have to hold on to that memory and listen to each other as much as you can.”

Watching her during the media interviews they did together, Grandison says she was struck by how calm Durham is.

“I noticed particularly how present she is. She has a stillness about her. It’s quite intense but it’s a soft, gentle energy. She’s very present and she listens intently and focuses you. She meets your gaze and she stays there.”

This is only the second time Grandison has originated a role in a brand new musical – in 1988 she took on the title role in David King and Nick Enright’s musical Mary Bryant at the Ensemble – and she says it is “a tremendous experience”.

“I think we are all really proud that it’s an Australian production, it’s an Australian story and it’s an Australian cast. It’s a dream come true. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the opportunity again. It is really special. Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she says.

“I’ve never been in a show where the response has been so wonderful. You look out during the show and there are people singing along or laughing or crying or sharing memories together and at the end they are on their feet cheering. I think all of us at the end of the show come off going ‘wow!’ every time.”

Georgy Girl plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until March 20. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849. State Theatre, Sydney, April 2 – June 5. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 21

Ladies in Black

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne, February 4

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Enchanting. That’s the word you keep hearing when people discuss the new Australian musical Ladies in Black – and enchanting it is.

It’s wonderful to see an Australian musical that succeeds so well as a show, feels distinctively Australian and strikes such a chord with audiences. What’s more, unlike hit musicals Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Boy From Oz, which use existing songs, Ladies in Black has an original score written by Tim Finn.

It was Finn who initiated the project, having had his interest piqued in writing a musical after a dozen of his pop songs were used in Poor Boy, a 2009 play with music by Matt Cameron. Finn approached Simon Phillips, the director of Poor Boy, who quickly became interested in the idea of Ladies in Black and agreed to direct it, bringing his wife Carolyn Burns on board to write the book, which is adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black.

Regular Phillips collaborator Gabriela Tylesova was enlisted to design set and costumes, Guy Simpson joined the team as orchestrator and musical supervisor, with Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer and David Walters as lighting designer. Together, they proved to be a match made in heaven and the results are a true delight.

Produced by Queensland Theatre Company, Ladies in Black premiered in Brisbane in November and was then presented by Melbourne Theatre Company in Melbourne, where it opened in January and runs until February 27.

Set in Sydney in the 1950s, it tells the coming-of-age story of high school leaver Lisa Miles; a story which embodies the changing role and status of women in Australia at that time. It’s also about a city and a country on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan thanks to the influx of European immigrants or “continentals” as the Australian characters call them.

LadiesChristen

Christen O’Leary as Magda and Sarah Morrison as Lisa. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Lisa, who is super-bright, wants to go to university if she gets the high grades anticipated. Her mother is supportive but her working class father won’t have a bar of it. As he sees it, a secretarial course is more than enough education for a woman; he’s already been generous in letting her stay on at school.

Over the Christmas holidays, Lisa gets a job at Goodes, Sydney’s most prestigious department store (a thinly disguised David Jones). Naïve and mousey when she starts, her horizons are rapidly expanded by the two women she assists in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, Patty and Fay, and particularly by the enigmatic Magda, a Hungarian refugee, who oversees the more exclusive attire in Model Gowns.

Magda takes a shine to Lisa and invites her home to meet her husband Stefan, where Lisa is excited by the chance to taste different food, discuss literature, dance and glimpse a far more bohemian, cultured, passionate lifestyle.

Woven through this narrative are the stories of Patty, who desperately wants a child but whose husband walks out on her when the infertility problem seems to be his, and Fay, a lively young woman with a past who would dearly love to settle down but who can’t find a man who wants more than a brief fling.

Burns’ book skilfully juggles the various stories and while it doesn’t go into great depth, the characters are well enough drawn and so beautifully performed that we believe in them, warm to them and care about them all.

In a succinct piece of storytelling, we also meet the lonely, kindly Miss Jacobs, whose fiancée was killed during the First World War. In a few brief moments we learn enough about her to be very moved by a short scene showing her at Christmas.

Finn’s music, which ranges in style from country ballads to soaring romantic odes to comedy numbers, is charmingly melodic. There isn’t a big 11 o’clock number, which wouldn’t go astray. Instead, the show ends with a reprisal of a song called “Tomorrow Becomes Today”.

The lyrics, also written by Finn, are sharp and witty, drawing on the Australian vernacular to great comic effect in numbers including the show-stopper “He’s a Bastard”, which gets a huge response. Fay’s song “I Just Kissed a Continental” is also joyously uplifting.

Performed by a six-piece band led by musical director David Young, the thoroughly engaging score has been given some lovely arrangements by Simpson.

Phillips, whose musical theatre credits include Priscilla, Love Never Dies and The Drowsy Chaperone among others, directs with consummate flair, keeping the action moving swiftly and seamlessly, aided by the three stage revolves incorporated into Tylesova’s design. Together with Hallsworth’s choreography, all the moments land from poignant moments of quiet drama to the exuberant showpieces.The only scene that feels under-staged (because of cast size and logistics) is Magda’s New Year’s Eve party where Magda essentially narrates what happens (including Lisa meeting a young man) and we just see silhouettes of people dancing.

Tylesova’s set features several Perspex pillars to suggest the elegance of Goodes, along with various props from clothing racks to tables and chairs, which appear quickly for the different settings. Her costumes are just gorgeous from glamorous gowns to colourful cotton frocks to 1950s beachwear.

LadiesinBlack4

Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder (front); Naomi Price, Deidre Rubenstein and Christen O’Leary (behind). Photo: Rob Maccoll

The cast is uniformly terrific – and given that the musical is primarily about women, it’s wonderful to see such a large, strong female cast. Sarah Morrison convincingly portrays Lisa’s gradual blossoming from shy, gauche youngster to confident young woman ready to face a brave new world. And, yes, she wears glasses initially which are later removed – a well-worn trick but one that works.

Lucy Maunder brings a luminosity and vulnerability to Patty, subtly conveying her confusion and heartache when her husband leaves. Naomi Price is wonderfully vivacious as Fay, and has us all rooting for her to find love. Christen O’Leary brings just the right level of exoticism to Magda, while the warm, loving, playful relationship she has with her Hungarian husband is delightfully evoked by her and Greg Stone.

Deidre Rubenstein gives a touching performance as the lonely Miss Jacobs, Carita Farrer Spencer conveys a quiet strength as Lisa’s mother, while Kate Cole and the very funny Kathryn McIntyre, both impress in double roles.

As the men in the women’s lives, Stone is excellent, giving two very different performances as Lisa’s disciplinarian, working class father and Magda’s loving, supportive husband. Bobby Fox is heartwarmingly charming as Rudi, another young Hungarian refugee and friend of Magda’s, and gets to dazzle with some fancy footwork, while Andrew Broadbent captures the emotional repression of Patty’s “bastard” Aussie husband Frank, later revealing the shame and hidden pain he is struggling with.

While tackling themes including the cultural cringe, sexism and xenophobic attitudes to refugees, Ladies in Black doesn’t dig that deep in its exploration of the era and has a light, almost fairytale feel to it. Nonetheless, the issues are still strongly felt and we care about all the characters. It’s a beguiling, joyous show and sent me home floating on air. Hopefully someone will bring it to Sydney – it certainly deserves to be more widely seen.

Ladies in Black plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until February 27. Bookings: www.mtc.com.au or 03 8688 0800

Defying Gravity

Theatre Royal, February 13

DefyingG1

Sutton Foster and Aaaron Tveit in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

 

It sounded pretty special on paper but high expectations were far exceeded in Defying Gravity, an electrifying concert featuring the songs of Stephen Schwartz that sent me home walking on air.

Produced by Enda Markey, the show was beautifully crafted in every respect and the love that swelled from the audience was well and truly deserved.

For starters there was the stellar cast: two of Broadway’s hottest stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, West End star Joanna Ampil, Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Broadway legend Betty Buckley making a guest appearance in the second act. They were all wonderful but Foster and Tveit completely blew me away. The chance to see them on the Sydney stage was a gift.

The meaty program was extremely well put-together featuring songs both very well known and less familiar including numbers from Schwartz’s musicals Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife and, of course, Wicked, along with numbers from Disney animated films such as Pocahontas, Enchanted and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on which he collaborated as lyricist with composer Alan Menken.

There was a good mixture of solos, duets and group numbers and lovely changes of pace from roof-raising numbers performed with the magnificent 15-piece band under conductor Guy Simpson to moments of quiet restraint such as Foster’s spellbinding rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt with solo guitar (Daniel Maher) and Cold Enough to Snow from the movie Life With Mikey movingly sung by Tveit accompanied on piano by Michael Tyack.

The choice of songs clearly illustrated Schwartz’s skill as a songwriter: a fine lyricist able to tell a story succinctly in song and convey a strong sense of character, emotion and empathy, as well as a catchy tunesmith.

Trent Suidgeest’s stage design was simple but had enough sparkle for the occasion with hanging strings of silver flakes as well as silver dusting the stage. Smoothly directed by Andrew Pole, the choreography of the performers on and off stage (as well as in several songs) was deft, as was their linking material, while the inclusion of comments from Schwartz on screen added insight to his career and process including his songwriting mantra: “Just tell the truth and make it rhyme”.

It was fascinating to see how the number The Wizard and I from Wicked gradually evolved from a song initially entitled Making Good.

The band was excellent and the sound was terrific (System Sound, Julian Spink and David Tonion).

Defying Gravity: The Songs Of Stephen Schwartz

David Harris, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Schwartz, Aaron Tveit, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster and Joanna Ampil in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

And then there were the performers. Sutton Foster, whose many Broadway credits include Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Violet, has a voice to die for: bright, clear, silvery and soaring. She can belt to the heavens as she showed with Defying Gravity, which had the audience on their feet screaming, or rein it right back in heartbreaking fashion as with I’m Not That Girl.

Tveit was also sensational. Star of Broadway shows Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, he played Enjolras in the 2012 movie of Les Miserables and Danny Zuko in the recent Fox Grease: Live. His lovely, light tenor soars effortlessly, he charms with a cheeky smile and twinkle in the eye, and he has a great sense of comedy. He knocked it out of the park with Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife and hammed it up delightfully in All From the Best from Godspell with David Harris.

Harris was also in fine voice. Known here for his performances in shows including Miss Saigon and Legally Blonde, he is now based in New York. Exuding a natural ease on stage, he gave a beautiful rendition of Corner of the Sky from Pippin and got a huge response from the audience with the sexy duet Endless Delights, performed with Helen Dallimore.

Dallimore, who originated the role of Glinda in the London production of Wicked and whose credits in Australia include Blood Brothers and Legally Blonde, showed her comic chops with Endless Delights, Popular from Wicked and It’s An Art, a song by a waitress from the musical Working.

Joanna Ampil, who has a lovely soprano voice, charmed with songs including Lion Tamer from The Magic Show, That’s How You Know from Enchanted and, most particularly, Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas.

Betty Buckley performed three songs in the second act: No Time At All from Pippin, in which she starred for several years, as well as Chanson and the gorgeous Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, bringing the audience to their feet. Schwartz actually wrote The Baker’s Wife with Buckley in mind but despite six auditions she didn’t land the role – a disappointment so devastating it consumed her for years as she explains with wry humour.

The show ended with Schwartz taking to the stage to perform Day By Day with the full company – an uplifting and touching end to an incredibly special event, which once again had the audience on their feet.

Earlier in the day, I saw Schwartz in conversation with Leigh Sales, a terrific interview about his career and craft, which only added to my appreciation of the concert.

All in all, a big thanks to Enda Markey for producing Defying Gravity. It was a little slice of musical theatre heaven. Pure bliss!